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Shi Lang Is No More: Say Hello To Liaoning

September 30, 2012

Yay for this low-res crap!

After a year of successive trials, the aircraft carrier formerly known as Varyag, which everyone thought was going to be called Shi Lang, is now part of the Chinese Navy.

In a lavish kick off on September 25, outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao and a panel of military officers were in Dalian, where the berthed carrier has resided for several years now.

A bit of back story:

The carrier, notable for its sloped runway, was purchased for a bargain price (just $20 million) from Ukraine in the late 1990s then towed to China. In an epic transit worthy of a movie, a small tug boat crew traversed three continents before it reached Dalian t0 undergo extensive refurbishing that lasted almost a decade.

Contrary to most expectations, the aircraft carrier was officially named Liaoning, after the northeastern province that’s China’s shipbuilding hub.

The resurrection of the Cold War-era hulk, already in China’s possession for more than a decade, fell under the state-controlled China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. Since 2011, when it was initially teased virally to a rapt global audience, the ex-Varyag was refitted with a new engine, paint job, and livable interiors.

During the same ceremony on September 25, PLAN Senior Colonel Zhang Zheng assumed command of Liaoning and its crew, who were in formal dress whites for the occasion.

In previous entries about China’s first aircraft carrier here at 21AAR, many of its capabilities were already highlighted. These include:

…a serious force projection tool and its weapons complement is proof of this. Recent photographs of its on board CIWS system and other armaments are already available. As of this writing, the Shi Lang carries four batteries of the FL-3000N missiles and two 30mmm CIWS cannon. As for aircraft, the Shi Lang operates J15s and ASW helicopters.

Additionally, the Liaoning is going out to sea with a squadron of J-15’s; these are license-built copies of the formidable Su-33, itself an improvement on the Su-27.

The timing of Liaoning’s debut is believed to be a signaler for China’s neighbors, specifically Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Recent petty territorial disputes over remote islands and shoals have inspired concern that China is now in a mood to exercise its hard power.

It must be noted, however, that while the commissioning of Liaoning is perceived as sensational, in reality China is a johnny-come-lately in the aircraft carrier game. For years, neighboring countries like Australia, Thailand, and India have deployed their own carriers, with little genuine strategic advantage to show for it. Also keep in mind that as a UN Security Council member with a carrier of its own, Liaoning is a featherweight compared to everyone else on that illustrious club.

But it hardly matters because in the broader modernization of the PLA the Liaoning and its future siblings are destined to join a shiny new Chinese armada that includes amphibious assault ships, frigates, and submarines.